Friday, January 4, 2008

Tell Me, Who Are You?

If only all birds said their names (think "Kill-deer"). I mean, if the tricky identifications had vocalizations that somehow gave it away, saving you from recording "possible" or "probable"; a chattering "Ka-MUN red-pol, ka-MUN red-pol" as opposed to a clear, whistled "OR-eeee red-pol, OR-eeee red-pol."

But that's part of the allure of birding. Separating the tiniest of differences to correctly assign an individual to a species, or, even better, subspecies. Sometimes it's just fun to figure out that puzzle that others have laid out for you, that rush of self-satisfaction when you defeat the challenge. By "fun" I mean the mental equivalent of self-flagellation.

By now birders across the continent (and thanks to the web, the world) know there is a major irruption of winter finches in the northeastern US this season. Discussions have popped up on blogs and listserves, and in hallways and lunch rooms at my workplace, about redpoll identification : when is a Common Redpoll large, pale, and/or frosted enough to be called a Hoary Redpoll? When are the undertail coverts sufficiently reduced, when is the profile "smushed" enough, when is the rump white enough?

I'm finding all that discussion, while helpful, is also distracting. I'm spending much, much longer sorting through the 50-odd redpolls at our feeder to find the Hoary, as I'm convinced there must be one, everywhere else there seems to be one (or more).

Two redpolls on the thistle feeder. The bird on the
right seems larger (I think), and paler than the one
on the left. Click the picture for a larger image.

The closest candidate I've found seems to fit some of the characteristics: an overall larger, frostier bird that sticks out of the flock. The face kind of has a "smushed" appearance, where the bill looks stubbier and as though it has been pushed back into the bird's head (relative to the neighboring Common Redpolls under the feeder, that is). I haven't seen the undertail coverts or the rump, so I can't comment on that, and (worse!) can't pose a remotely convincing argument to call it "Hoary."

No nearby bird for comparison, but seems
to be paler than an "expected" redpoll.
Click the picture for a larger image.

Incidentally, David Sibley has been poring over these identification issues, recently creating a "Characteristic Index for Redpoll Identification" (read more of his thoughts here, here, here, and here). How about you all? Any thoughts, based on a couple of mediocre photos?

To put a real frustrating, er, challenging, point on it, a second bird utilized our feeding station, trolling for food. Not the food I offer directly, but the kind I attract: it interrupted a Mourning Dove's millet snack, chasing it through the yard, but came up empty. I spent some time poring over Wheeler's "Raptors of Eastern North America" to compare traits on this bird with the diagnostic field marks.

I know what I think of this bird, and I had the unfair advantage of seeing it in various poses and actions, but what do you think? Sharpie or Cooper's? We've had both in previous winters. Click the pictures for larger images.


mon@rch said...

These guys are tough and reading all the discussions have been helpful but also frustrating! But, I think many of us looking for the hoary need to accept that some can only be considered possibles!

noflickster said...

Hi mon@rch - I'm convinced the more you learn, the harder it gets! It was much easier when I didn't have to think about variability and "gray areas." Like you said, I think there will always be room for "probable" and "possible" on the checklists, whether we like it or not!

Of course, that's what keeps birding interesting: you never master it, just open new challenges.

Thanks for stopping by!

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

Aren't we all scouring our redpoll flocks looking for those hoaries that MUST be there? I'm still lookin' since my Hoary vs. Common debate post ended up with a majority of "probably nots".

noflickster said...

I think the redpoll ID challenge is one that will always need to have "probable" and "possible" available for the "final" ID! We had one bird that *could* have crossed from Common to Hoary, but in no way definitive enough for me to add it to any list.


I often wonder how often we see someting "good" (that is, different), but it isn't different enough for us to solidly separate from the "usual."

We're down to one redpoll, clearly a Common Redpoll, but I'm hoping a nomadic flock will arrive with a definitive Hoary.

Yeah, and a Gyrfalcon might show up, too . . . .

Continued good luck with your backyard birds!
- Mike

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